Since going freelance last year I’ve spent weeks chasing up invoices, restless nights in the face of unrealistic deadlines and every social event dodging that dreaded, defining question: ‘What do you do?’ Commissioned by Culture Liverpool as part of the Liverpool 2018 programme, REAL WORK explores this type of precarious and unrecognised labour through 15 individual stories. Consisting of two video installations, Liz Magic Laser and Candice Breitz examine issues surrounding the largely deregulated arenas of online gig-work and sex work, respectively.
In Gallery One, Laser collaborates with five freelancers to produce an experimental reality show ‘In Real Life’ (2019). Each episode has the participants embark upon a ‘journey of self-improvement to optimise their minds and bodies for success’. With the help of a bio-hacking life coach and psychic adviser, the contestants each complete a 30-day ‘bio-hack’ challenge, vlogging their experience as they go. In documentary format reminiscent of BBC3, ‘In Real Life’ is Snog, Marry, Avoid reimagined for the ‘always on’ generation. The intro graphics flash aspirational, Instagram worthy phrases – ‘Get shit done!’ and ‘In do-ers we trust!’ whilst the voiceover narrates ‘How do you win? You upgrade yourself!’
Laser highlights the intersectional issues that exacerbate precarity; Zahid, a graphic designer from Pakistan must complete for work despite fasting for Ramadan, whilst Alabi, an animator in Nigeria wrestles with continuous power cuts. The intrinsic link between labour and feminism is explored through Kiki, a voice-over artist and stay at home mum, whilst Nikki, a beauty blogger who went freelance after a hip replacement, considers issues of health and disability.
Despite hostile conditions, it’s apparent in the premise of the show that these individuals bear sole responsibility for their success and wellbeing. Rather than unionising or rallying for policy changes, the solution proposed by the ‘bio-hacks’ is simple: increased productivity. Symptomatic of the commodification of care and self-improvement, these include; vibration plates, DNA test kits and heart monitors. Scriptwriter Cardy, for example, is prescribed daily cold showers and a ‘Pavloc’ device, which electrocutes him each time he strays from his work. Speaking perhaps to the renewed popularity of stoic philosophy, it shows how easily well-intentioned discipline can slip into a form of self-punishment.
As they slap on smiles and confess the successes of their respective challenges, ‘In Real Life’ feels like watching a series of sponsored YouTube videos with their language of self- betterment, overstated positivity, and challenge formats. Mirroring a culture of quick fixes and outsourced responsibility back to itself, Laser exposes our misplaced desire to make the unmanageable manageable.
Gallery 2 is Candice Breitz’s 10-channel video installation ‘Sweat’ (2018), made in collaboration with ten South African Sex Workers. Breitz confronts us with a room of different coloured, chattering lips that force her audience into unusually intimate proximity to each screen in order to distinguish one voice from the next. The mouth, so large in its closeness, becomes abstracted, facial hairs washed up around crinkled lips.
The workers offer anecdotes and insights into how their labour has affected their lives, but despite being up-close, it’s difficult to hear clearly. Voices blur in an out of one another, a lack of clarity indicative of how little we hear these stories in mainstream culture. With patience, and the help of the transcripts near the entrance, ‘Sweat’ offers illuminating observations on post-colonialism, performativity and the racist, gender-based violence sex workers are regularly exposed to. Emphasising the lack of legal protection within the industry, Breitz insists on the necessity of destigmatization and the extending of human rights to sex workers.
As I leave the gallery and fire up my laptop ready to battle with my next batch of invoices, I wonder how life would look if we didn’t define it in relation to the status of wage labour? How could we prosper if we prioritised building systems of care rather than selling ways to cope with an abusive status quo? REAL WORK calls attention to the perversity of a culture that equates wage work with value, highlighting the urgency not only for reviewed legislation to protect the vulnerable but the need to dismantle the neoliberal ideology that underpins it. When our time is a site of political contention – who decides where we spend it?
REAL WORK is on display at FACT until 6 October 2019.
Stephanie Gavan is a freelancer based in Liverpool and studying MA Writing (2019-2021) at the Royal College of Art.